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Martha and Mary

Robinson College, June 2015


According to Terry Eagleton, “A lot of fiction since the early 20th century takes it for granted that families will be dysfunctional, individual lives unfulfilled and relationships cockpits of gladiatorial combat. Is it an ontological truth that families are bunches of people who get on each other’s nerves?”  Apparently, that is nothing new.  It’s been a famous story in Christian circles for two millenia: Martha has invited Jesus and his friends back to her place where he sits with the disciples and talks about stuff.  Martha’s sister, Mary, sits with the disciples, instead of helping Martha prepare a cream tea.  


Martha is naturally appalled that her sister is not busy slaving in the kitchen with her – so tells Jesus to get her to pull her weight.  And Jesus basically says, ‘No – she’s got more important stuff going on: she’s listening to me.’  The passage has been a source of biblical frustration to generations of socially compliant housewives who know that their place in life is to provide the port and cigars for the menfolk who are busy discussing political affairs.  The kind of thing women don’t need to worry their pretty little heads about.  As the Reforming Theologian Martin Luther, declared back in the 16th Century,


“Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children.”


This, traditionally, is the social dynamic providing the lens for what is going on in this passage.  Jesus is widely expected to uphold the conventions of the Roman Household – and get the woman and host to do the serving.  And Jesus says, No!  I’m not getting Mary to wait on the table!  Whatever else Jesus means by this – whether deliberately or accidentally – he is undermining unquestionable social conventions.  And this is not, I suspect, because he had seen a Citroen Advert telling him to defy convention.  


No, whatever was revolutionary about this Jesus, whatever was subversive and unconventional about this Jesus had nothing to do with someone trying to be clever or arty or different.  Neither was Jesus being some kind of a proto-feminist, or liberation theologian, or a politically correct member of Occupy.  If there was anything revolutionary about Jesus, it was accidental – it came about as a result of something else.  


Interpreters will sometimes point out, of course, that Martha was a pragmatist person, bothered about doing everything properly and fussing about trying to get into heaven by performing good works, being piously and tediously well behaved.  Mary, on the other hand, preferred lounging around on her back side, listening to sound Christian doctrine so that she could get into heaven on account of having revised the correct information.


The real question here, it seems to me, is how was everyone going to eat?  The alert reader cannot help being drawn all the way back to the temptation story in Luke’s Gospel, where the devil pitches up to a hungry Jesus and suggests that he picks up a stone and turns it into a piece of bread.  And Jesus’s reply is, “Human beings cannot live only on bread.”  Humanity relies not only on bread, in order to be sustained, but on other stuff as well.  In fact, Jesus was quoting from the Old Testament book called Deuteronomy, where it says, “One does not live only on bread, but on the word that comes out of the mouth of God.”  


So, sitting in the living room of Martha and Mary, Mary is listening to the Word of Jesus.   Whatever the ‘word’ was, you can be pretty sure it had nothing to do with teaching weak minded morons about how to get to heaven when you die.  No – in the context of the Gospel of Luke, as in the other gospels, Jesus is offering an alternative way of being human. The presentation of the Kingdom of God is a beleaguered cry for regime change.  But this was not simply salvation from an oppressive empire – this is a complete reordering of what it means to be a human and living in a society, alongside other humans, in a divinely ordered creation.


This incident comes hard on the heels of Jesus’s most famous parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Everybody knew, of course, that there was no such thing as a good Samaritan.  But the parable is not simply the biblical equivalent of the moral injunction to Hug a Hoody.  No – this is a complete reordering of what it means to be a fully fledged human being in Jewish eyes.  The Priest and the Levite were both expected to avoid all risk of contact with a dead body, so they could not stop at the road side to administer first aid to someone who might die in the process.  But the Samaritan, the hated foreigner, the outsider, the disposable nobody, the godless heathen outside the borders of acceptability – that Samaritan becomes an agent of divine care.


In praising him, Jesus is not simply exhorting his followers to be nice to people.  He is claiming that the being of God is embodied anywhere that practical, political, down-to-earth love is expressed.  There is no human being who is not a neighbour, there is no human being who does not carry the image of God, and no human being that is worth more than another.  That is part of the message of the Kingdom of God, the new household, the new way of being human.


And here, again, at the home of Martha and Mary, Jesus is not setting out to reorder gender relationships.  It is simply that on his account of being human, what is conventional wisdom may have to be abandoned altogether.  Martha, it seems, is bound up with trying to fit the message of Mr Jesus into her convention.  Mary, it seems from what Jesus says, is open to something more radical.


But there she is, sat on her back side, while her sister is doing all the work.  I take it, though, that Mary isn’t still sat there at the end of the Gospel.  And that seems to be largely the point – if Mary is busy having her worldview deconstructed, her mindset radically re-oriented, her ideology reformed – then when she gets up, the kind of action in which she will automatically, and subconsciously and unwittingly engaged, will be a different set of actions than if she just carried on busying herself doing good things in the conventional way.


This – it seems – was the logic of Saint Augustine, with that famous phrase, love and do what you like.  In other words, when you are genuinely characterised by radical self-giving love, then you don’t have to worry about stuff like conventional ethics, because the stuff that you do will automatically be good stuff.  Love, and do as you like.  


The same argument is made today in a far atheist, and secular way by the infamous anti-capitalist thinker, Slavoj Zizek, who says, Don’t act – just think!  In other words, when it comes to being good – it is often said, Oh, come on – who has time to think, who has time for intellectual reflection – there are starving children now, so we must act now.  Don’t think, just act.  Just give – we can’t have any of this ivory tower rubbish when there is so much need in the world.  So thinking is a bad thing, it’s a luxury – no just earn more, give more, and the world will be a better place.


And Zizek says, No – if you ever want to change the world from this state of perpetual crisis, it is precisely why you need the Ivory Towers of Academia.  In a world that has closed down alternative ways of thinking, in a world where purchasing a mass produced motor vehicle counts as defying convention, in a world where everyone thinks they are blue-sky thinkers – more than ever, he says, there is a need for radically alternative ways of thinking of ourselves, and our world and our place in the world.  Don’t act, just think – because if you are properly engaged in thinking, then certain courses of action will inevitably ensue.   It reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s famous line – don’t just do something: stand there…  Or in Mary’s case, sit there – listening to Jesus.


And that seems to be the course of action Mary has chosen, much to the offence of Martha.  Mary is not simply sat there gathering pointless information about an unscientific fairy tale from the lips of a deluded moron who thinks he’s the son of God.  In the context of Luke, with the kind of thing Jesus is saying throughout the Gospel, she is exposed to a radically alternative worldview.  Martha, has no doubt prepared a lovely meal, and I would love to have seen her face as she served it up!  Of course, we don’t know whether she offered it with the word, “I hope you choke on it”, or whether she took a leaf out of her sister’s book.  


In any case, I like to think Mary pitched in when it came to cleaning up – otherwise there really would be trouble.  In fact, if we’re true to the Gospel, then we should probably picture all the disciples pitching in, and doing a mass happy clean up like when the dwarves visited Bilbo at Bag End.  Of course, we don’t know how the story ends, we don’t know how Martha reacted because Luke expects his readers to identify with his characters, and become in themselves, an embodiment of the story ending well.